Our original article outlining why there is a need to raise awareness of the lack of use of parks by older girls – The Right to Equal Play – can be found here. This was influenced by the work of Make Space for Girls, whose initial aims include raising awareness of the issue and gathering more research. Over the last year there has been further research on older girls’ use of parks, including ours on Rowntree Park in York. In this article we examine what the research suggests and how we can start to improve parks for older girls.
Table of content
Summary of the issue
When asked what play and facilities they have in parks for older children, most councils in the UK would list skateparks, BMX tracks, football pitches and MUGAs. There aren’t many studies of older children and parks, but what there is shows that such facilities are dominated by boys and therefore can’t be said to be ‘gender neutral’ (1). Delving into the reasons why males dominate these areas and girls stay away is useful, but complex. What is clear is that it is important that the views of young people, including girls, are considered when building new parks or adding new facilities to parks. As it stands, parks are planned and built for the ‘default male citizen’ (2). Councils may not be intending to discriminate, but by not considering the views of girls this is what happens (3). In truth, when looking for play ideas and equipment for older children, councils have a limited catalogue to choose from. It’s possible that what girls want and need may need some thought and some new design ideas. Make Space for Girls have started to explore this (4).
It is worth noting that any improvements based on the views of girls also benefit other groups. In addition, when the views of boys are taken into consideration regarding what they’d like to see in parks, current research shows that there are a lot of similarities between boys and girls. Perhaps what are assumed to be facilities for older children are not actually what the majority would choose.
What research shows
In younger age groups, the use of parks seems to be fairly equal between boys and girls, especially when parents are around. But it’s when children start to use facilities alone that girls tend to use parks, or certain areas of them, less.
Research shows that from the age of 8 there are less girls using public parks, and this decreases as girls get older and gain more independence (5). As fewer girls use parks and retreat more to private spaces, this can have a negative impact on physical and mental health. From the age of 10, activity levels drop significantly in girls, until by the age of 13-15, only 8% of girls are meeting physical activity guidelines (6).
Recent research by Yorkshire Sport Foundation (7) found that parks/green spaces are popular places for teens to hang out in their spare time, with 48% of girls using them regularly, compared to 63% of boys. Parks ranked second in the places they frequent in their spare time, with shopping centres/shops in the top position (8). However, the research shows that 59% of girls don’t feel welcome in parks because the spaces are dominated by boys.
Reasons that influence girls’ use of parks
In this section, the term ‘formal play spaces’ refers to facilities such as skateparks, football pitches, basketball courts, BMX tracks and MUGAs.
A range of reasons/factors can cause this decrease in older girls’ use of parks:
Boys dominate formal play spaces – Studies of school playground behaviour show that boys tend to dominate formal play spaces, and that some girls withdraw/are less active when boys are present. This behaviour has been mirrored in parks (9) .
‘Territorialism’ – This occurs when people think of a space as belonging to a certain group. It may not just be the users themselves, but others as well. This can be seen in skateparks, where boys and young adults spend time practising their skills and hanging out with friends. It may not be the boys themselves who are working to keep out other users, but more that the perception is that the skatepark is for males. ‘Territorialism’ teaches boys to see the public space as theirs: they grow up seeing other males using the space and there is an assumption. Girls believe that their right to access certain public spaces is dependent on boys allowing them in (10).
Negative treatment – Another reason girls give for not using formal play spaces is the fear of physical contact and negative comments. Feedback from skateparks points at similar reasons – girls don’t like the competitive element and fear criticism and taunting, or being pushed out of the way, making them feel they shouldn’t be there. Also cited is the fear of being mocked for getting sweaty/red in the face when exercising (11).
Safety – A Girlguiding study showed that over 40% of girls aged between 11 and 21 feel unsafe when they go outside, and a third are worried about doing things outside (11). In the Yorkshire Sport Foundation study, just under a third of girls said not feeling safe stops them from using parks (12). The presence of boys significantly increases girls’ safety concerns to 51%, with 41% of girls worried about harassment from boys. This stems from girls’ experiences with boys in school and the wider community (13). Our own research in Rowntree Park found that half the girls surveyed felt unsafe in the park.
Girls feel they shouldn’t be in play parks/or that there are a lack of facilities for them – Older girls have cited that they’d like to use play parks, especially swings and climbing equipment, but they feel they aren’t meant for people their age. This was clear in our research. Girls perceive that parents of younger children are looking at them, thinking that they shouldn’t be there. A few girls we spoke to said they’d actually had a parent say something along those lines. The girls feel bad when little children want to use the equipment so they move aside. The Yorkshire Sport Foundation study states that parks don’t meet the needs of the majority of girls, with 68% of girls saying there is nothing for them to do or that park space and equipment tends to cater to boys’ physical activity needs (14).
The above feedback is from research in Rowntree Park
Social expectations – There are numerous factors that interplay here, but to keep it simple, girls have been socialised into certain norms. Behaviour and activities linked to formal play spaces don’t correlate with these. Additionally, parents can be more cautious about girls going out alone or to public places. In addition, 73% of girls in the Yorkshire Sport Foundation study said they stop being active if people are watching for fear of being scrutinised (15).
Other reasons given include:
- Lack of facilities or maintained facilities such as toilets (important for girls navigating puberty)
- Lack of knowledge of how to engage with activities/facilities.
The importance of ‘play’ and design of areas for play
Play is so important for children’s development from an early age. Exercising while young benefits girls and reduces the chance of osteoporosis in later life. Children learn social skills through play as well as developing physical skills such as balance. Girls need equal access to ways to develop these skills. Therefore considering inclusive playgrounds in schools or childcare settings, as well as public parks, is important.
Quite often school playgrounds can become dominated by boys playing football. “In general, the boys have the central space with the football field, the basketball court, or games that require expression, that is to say to run, to take up space… and the girls, without realising it, will put themselves in the spaces that are left for them… Having less room to play, not being able to play what you want because you are a girl, or a boy who is not conforming enough, makes playgrounds hierarchical. You can only enter the space if engaging with the game happening there” (16). Girls are often found at the side but are happy to utilise the space if the area is cleared for games like tag, running or doing cartwheels. Barcelona architects Equal Saree designed an inclusive school playground (not football-dominated) aimed at ages 6-12. They found boys and girls play more together if one group doesn’t take over a space. In the playground they created there were lots of separate varied areas.
This idea continues in parks. It’s been argued that areas designated for a certain activity such as football, skating, basketball etc become claimed by boys. Girls don’t tend to use these areas as they are less keen on the competitive sports element, as pushing, hitting and/or banter are likely. If an area that was previously designated to something like football is taken away, boys see it as unfair. They see it as their right to have this area – but it’s less clear how this understanding of ‘right’ has happened. If the space is not designated to a specific activity and there is flexibility with choices of things to play, then equal play seems more likely and play is more likely to be co-constructed (17). Therefore when planning for parks or improving parks, these are useful ideas to keep in mind.
How do older girls use parks?
The Yorkshire Sport Foundation research highlighted that parks are somewhere girls would go in their spare time. They mainly use parks to socialise (67%), walk (67%) and play on park equipment (45%). Conversely, boys are more likely to participate in vigorous activity including organised sport, bike riding and running (18).
From our own initial research on Rowntree Park, we found that 70% of older girls still use the play parks. 44% like the natural areas such as the woods, ponds and wildlife area, and 33% like the large open spaces (grass and amphitheatre), whereas only 12% said they use the skatepark and 8% the basketball courts.
When asked in more detail what play park equipment they use, the following scored most highly:
- 100% swings
- 78% zip line
- 61% Climbing equipment/agility equipment
How can you improve parks for older girls?
There needs to be a lot more research into this area. However, from feedback globally, nationally and locally, some key themes are emerging that should be considered when planning or improving parks:
- Free space with some areas not designated for specific activities
- Benches – round picnic ones/ones organised socially facing one another.
- Swings – normal, basket and group swings that face one another.
- Shelters (with benches ideally)
- Climbing/agility equipment
- Good facilities (like toilets) and clean maintained parks.
How do the views of older boys and girls for improving parks compare?
Studies of younger children and playgrounds show that when formal areas are removed and opportunities for play are more varied, boys and girls play more together and spaces aren’t dominated by one over the other.
Interestingly, research emerging on parks also emphasises that ‘ideal parks’ for older boys and girls are not that different. When Yorkshire Sport Foundation asked those in their study what would help encourage them do more sport and exercise in their areas, the results showed that trampolines were wanted the most by both groups (70% girls/53% boys), followed by things such as play equipment for older children (63% girls/48% boys), then swings (72% girls/39% boys).
Facilities like skateparks were wanted by 31% of both boys and girls. Boys did rate BMX tracks, MUGAS and gym equipment higher than girls. Interestingly, nature trails/woods scored quite highly (38% girls/34% boys), indicating that connecting with nature is valued (19).
Rowntree Park: What do older girls like and dislike about it?
Rowntree Park is a park 15 minutes from the centre of York, managed by the city council but with a strong Friends group. Due to a reduction of council funding for parks over recent years, the Friends help maintain certain areas of the park. In addition, we run a range of activities, events and projects for the community and are passionate about the park. We aren’t designing a park from scratch as the park already exists, so what we can do is look at our park and consider what does and doesn’t work for girls, and consider their views on what we could do to improve things. To be able to make changes to the park, we need support from the council who oversee the areas as a whole. We have this support in principle, though any plans for changes are down to us to come up with and look for relevant funding, the council will help and support where possible.
The park is fairly large with a skatepark, basketball court, tennis courts, table tennis area, toilets, railed picnic gardens, a railed play park and a smaller play park aimed at ages 8 and over. There are also ponds, a library/cafe, a tarmacked amphitheatre/stage area, a woodland area with a log story circle, and a new wildlife area being developed. The space is quite open and formal in the main park, with lots of wide paths and benches throughout. The wildlife areas are on the southern edge of the park. What is important to note is that feedback from engagement over the past 12 months shows there are lots of things about the park that older girls do like. However, there is always room for improvement and that’s what we are looking at.
What older girls currently like/use:
- Circular picnic benches to sit and talk to friends
- Swings and climbing equipment
- Engaging in nature – seeing the plants, flowers, trees, wildlife.
- Open spaces such as the amphitheatre/stage, where you can rollerblade/cycle/perform/ or just sit.
- Open spaces like the railed gardens – a space to play but with places to sit and chat (around picnic benches).
- Wildlife area/pond dipping area and story circle (but only with friends as these areas are tucked away).
In addition to the physical features in the park it’s been noted that the girls like the park to have a range of ages in it. They also like seeing the park as a community venue – we have activities such as dance classes, pilates and yoga, Tai Chi, music events, forest school, and more. Although most of these classes/activities are not aimed at older girls, girls like seeing the activities happening as it makes the park feel welcoming and safer for them. One local girl gets out and about around the park alone or with friends looking for ‘Pokemon Spots’ after school and in the early evenings – having this app on her phone encourages her to go for walks.
What older girls don’t like/don’t use:
- The majority won’t use the skatepark/basketball courts as there are too many boys, and the areas are enclosed/caged so they seem unwelcoming.
- Toilets can be unclean/vandalised
- They feel they shouldn’t be in the small play park where the swings are or other equipment that they might want to use.
- They feel less safe in the evenings as there are less adults about – the basketball courts and skateparks get busier and large groups of boys are more likely to be around.
It’s been suggested that things to look at and things to do makes the park more interesting. We do have tree trails and art in the park. Feedback has suggested that information boards work better for trails than having to pick up a leaflet to do them.
Rowntree Park: What older girls would like to see
- More swings and climbing equipment added (but not in small children’s play area)
- More benches near play areas (circular picnic benches were suggested).
- Girl-only activities/sports led by a female
- Having their views/suggestions considered and being involved in making change (thus feeling part of the community).
As mentioned at the start of this article, the suggestions made by local girls are currently based on limited knowledge of what a park could include. It is possible that designs in the future will be shaped by girls’ feedback regarding what they enjoy. We aim to continue to follow up our initial research with wider groups.
Rowntree Park: What have we done, what are we doing, and what next?
What have we done so far:
- Online survey on the park in general (Aug 2021)
- Girls in-person session (Oct 2021)
- Raising awareness of general issues and what we are doing via press, radio, blogs and social media.
- Talking to our local MP
- Talking to the council
- Supporting others getting started on similar projects in their own local area, including councils.
- Running ‘Wild Ones’ sessions for girls 10-16 (started Sept 2021)
- Applying for funding for equipment
What are we currently doing, and what’s next?
Our aim is to look at improving the park in general for older girls, but later we may also focus on the skatepark and basketball courts and what could be done to encourage girls to use these more.
The original vision, which we still hold, was to see if we can involve local girls in all stages of the project where possible. This includes raising awareness, what changes they’d like, funding applications and so on. This is something we hope to continue to do. For us, it’s a gradual process of making improvements to our park: change may be piecemeal but each step will hopefully make a difference.
We applied for local ward funding in June 2022, and have been granted some money toward a basket swing and some benches. The Public Realms department of the council are going to support us with the finances for installation. These new facilities will be installed near the older children’s play area. This area was chosen by local girls as they feel it’s open, in sight of the small play park (and therefore adults) but it’s also an area that is theirs.
We have also been running a weekday evening session for girls aged 10-16 since September 2021. This has proved popular, with great feedback. The group takes place in our small wooded area and is based around nature activities. Examples include whittling wood, foraging, and nature art and crafts. The group is advertised as a safe space for girls to talk, meet new people, develop confidence and resilience and of course, engage with nature. We have lots of hammocks hung between the trees and these are so popular! The girls love just hanging out and talking as they swing. These sessions have been run as part of our wellbeing programme and funded by a grant from the LNER community investment fund. Seeing the girls in the park in the evening as a safe space and helping them develop skills and interests linked to nature and our park means they feel it’s their place. Hopefully this helps them see the park as a diverse place, and that there is more to it than just the formal areas.
More girl groups
We are considering running dance classes for older girls, inspired by social media trends. We looked into running girls-only skate skill sessions, but the facilitator we had in mind is no longer able to run them. But this is something we’d still like to do if the right people are out there and interested.
The ideal is equal use of the park and facilities. However, by getting more older girls into the park and them seeing it as a welcoming space, their space, will hopefully lead to change along the line.
Over the next few months the following will take place:
- A further survey (to follow up and focus on specific areas). This is open to boys and girls age 10-16. Click here
- Social observations/data collection on use of areas of the park including the skatepark and basketball court
- Focus groups – the first is Saturday 1st of October 4-5pm. aimed at girls aged 10-16. We will be hanging in hammocks and chatting views and ideas. Book for this free event here.
We will see what this research shows and this will guide the direction that things then take. It will also depend on who gets involved and the ideas that emerge.
Abigail Gaines – Friends of Rowntree Park.
This project is led by volunteers from the Friends of Rowntree Park with an interest in making a difference. We are not academics or professional researchers, but we hope the work we are doing is of interest and makes a difference to our local community. We welcome anyone to get involved and help shape the project.
Make Space for Girls for inspiration, support and continuing to share relevant research.
LNER – Investment and community fund who fund our wellbeing programme that includes the group for older girls.
Micklegate Ward – for funding a basket swing and benches.
Dave Meigh – Public Realms York City Council for agreeing to support us in getting new equipment in place.
Yorkshire Sport Foundation report – Make space for us– with research undertaken by Women in Sport.
- Default male citizens – those making decisions are often men and without seeking views of others, decisions reflect their bias whether intentional or not.
- Referencing our original article – ‘The right to equal play’ August 2021
- Make Space for Girls – https://makespaceforgirls.co.uk/
- Stockholm University 2012/ White Arkitekter. Flickrum – Places for girls. 2018 https://whitearkitekter.com/project/places-for-girls/
- Puberty and Sport: An Invisible Stage, Women in Sport, (cited ‘Make Space for Girls’ – Summary of research findings December 2020’
- Yorkshire Sport Foundation ‘Make Space for us’ research undertaken by Women in Sport. The research set out to understand the use of three parks across South Yorkshire and West Yorkshire among teenage girls to understand how girls feel about being active outdoors in their local parks and green spaces) . ‘Make space for us’ (June 2022, p4).
- Yorkshire Sport Foundation ‘Make Space for us’ June 2022, p6.
- Edith Maruéjoulos. Cited:
- Thompson, 2005, P64
- Friends of Rowntree Park focus group feedback, Oct 2021.
- Girls Attitudes Survey 2019, Girlguiding.
- Yorkshire Sport Foundation ‘Make Space for us’ June 2022, p16.
- Yorkshire Sport Foundation ‘Make Space for us’ June 2022, p15.
- Yorkshire Sport Foundation ‘Make Space for us’ June 2022, p17.
- Edith Maruéjoulos cited https://world.edu/school-diversity-what-can-gender-neutral-playgrounds-bring/
- Visible Women podcast- Caroline Criado Perez https://www.tortoisemedia.com/audio/visible-women-caroline-criado-perez-episode-2/
- Yorkshire Sport Foundation ‘Make Space for us’ June 2022, p12.
- Yorkshire Sport Foundation ‘Make Space for us’ June 2022, p30.
Please note – more detailed feedback from the initial survey and focus groups on the skatepark will be shared at a later date and the hope is to do some follow up work on this too as and when time allows.